Posted June, 2010
Photo by Rob Shanahan
As a teenager growing up in Phoenix, I worked at the long gone Sun Maid Grocery in the then agricultural suburb of Peoria. One of my rituals after work was to hop in my car, role down my window, crank up my radio (no, it wasn’t even a stereo at that time – just an AM radio). The music and the wind blowing in my then-long hair as I made my way home down those then-desolate country roads helped me unwind.
On more than one occasion, after a particularly rough night at work and getting my ritual underway for my commute home, the soothing sounds of Dream Weaver by Gary Wright would crackle out of the radio. The ethereal melodies of the song would cause me to decompress as I drove through the desert night with the stars smiling down at me as I conjured up big dreams, convinced that anything was possible.
Another of Mr. Wright’s iconic hits, Love Is Alive, was a favorite of the many dances at Moon Valley High School. A lot of us kids viewed the song as one of the more danceable songs to be played. Of course, for me, it took a lot of dream weavin’ of my own for me to think that I could dance to anything, let alone Love Is Alive.
For many of us, great songs like these by great artists like Gary Wright are what make up the soundtrack of youth. Now that our hair is shorter, thinner and grayer (if it exists at all), we hear these tunes or see these icons and a smile effortlessly comes to our faces as memories come flooding to our minds.
So, it was with great pleasure that I was recently offered the opportunity, by way of Boomerocity friend and rock photographer extraordinaire, Rob Shanahan, to interview Gary Wright. With his first pop album out in over twenty years coming out on June 8th, 2010, and his second tour with none other than Ringo Starr, it was with giddy excitement that I chatted with Mr. Dream Weaver himself.
My first group of questions surrounded Gary’s new album, Connected. Because it had been over two decades since his last mainstream release, I asked him what he waited so long to come out with this disc.
“It’s because I’ve been involved with doing other kinds of music that I needed to get out of my system – World music, in particular. The last studio pop album I did was called Who I Am, which was released in ’87. I was just starting to get involved with world music at the time through my relationship with George Harrison.
“Then, I did an album in ’95 which was recorded in Brazil with some great musicians and I also used a couple of African guys. It was kind of an Afro-Brazilian world music album. I did another album in ’99 which came out called Human Love, with some African guys, too.
“Then, I spent the last decade doing different stuff like producing. My son, Justin, put a band together and released his first album. His group is called Intangible, on my own record label and that took up a lot of my time. And then I decided that I wanted to go back into the studio and do a full-fledged album.
“So, after I did the Ringo tour in 2008, I started writing for the new album and it finished in January of this year. So, I’ve been working on it for a little over two years.”
I’ll be the first to admit that, among the dummies I am, I am one when it comes to world music. I’m just not that familiar with it so I asked Wright what the receptivity of his world music projects have been like.
“You know, that’s kind of like a taste-specific kind of thing. Some people like it. Some people are alienated by it and don’t understand it. You have to have a taste for it. Like Peter Gabriel, same deal. He has his company, Real Music, I think that’s the name, any way, he does the same thing. He produces artists who are really great musicians but are obscure to the mainstream of buying people.”
Briefly returning to his work while in Brazil, Gary says that the country “has always been involved in music. They live and breathe it down there. I went down there in ’79 and it was an amazing experience. Their people just LOVE music because of their roots – their Afro roots – it’s a combination of different things. But it’s great! There are some great players there!”
In the days before the interview, I listened to Connected several times before ever reading the press release that came with my copy. I do that in order to see if my impressions of a disc align with the expectations of the artist. I shared with Wright my four impressions that I personally had of the album and asked him if my perceptions were accurate.
Those four impressions were:
· The vibe of the album is very positive and uplifting theme throughout the entire disc.
Before I could go to my second impression, blurted out, “That was my goal! You hit the nail right on the head!”
Ah! I love it when I’m right!
Moving on, I shared the rest of my impressions. I said that:
· The disc had a spiritual, almost “gospel” sound to it on some cuts
· When it didn’t come across as “spiritual” then they felt like love songs of a deep, spiritual kind
· I was amazed at the intricate musicianship on the disc supported by equally intricate production/engineering
Were the rest of my perceptions accurate?
“I think your take on the album is very perceptive. I agree with everything you just said. Number one, I firmly believe that music is an art and, as an art, its chief function is to uplift people. There’s enough negation in the world that we’re constantly reminded of in our daily lives that we don’t need more of that.
“In India, they say, ‘everyone has a choice: You can either go smell the flowers or you can look down in the sewers.’ It’s each individual’s choice as to what he chooses to do and the more you program your mind to only allow thoughts that are positive and uplifting, and people do all of that, the world will be a better place.
“That’s why I call the album Connected because we are all connected, really, through our thoughts. The mass thoughts of everyone influence the karma, so to speak, of the world. The weather patterns, the calamities that happen, the wars and all of that stuff – it’s all man’s thinking.
“There is definitely a spiritual level to the album. I try to write the lyrics to my songs that one can either sing them to God or sing them to your wife or your girlfriend. That’s all in the mind of the person who’s listening. You can do it either way. So that is true, what you just said.
“The intricacy of the music? Well, I’ve been doing this now for almost forty years so I’ve learned a lot about production and worked with the greatest people throughout my career and have also cultivated a group of friends – musician friends – who have generously offered talents to play on my album. People like Ringo and Skunk Baxter and Joe Walsh. I’ve always, throughout the years, managed to get these kinds of people to play on my records and it’s always been a joy to work with that kind of musicianship.”
I shared with Gary the positive nature of Boomerocity, whether it was in the interviews conducted or within the product or concert reviews shared on the site. The intention is the same: accentuate the positive.
Mr. Wright is supportive in his response. “I think that’s good. I think it would be nice if more people were to have that kind of attitude for like, go to this website if you want to hear somebody’s positive reviews on an album – not to, necessarily, need to gloss over the flaws of it. But I’m thinking if the album is not really your cup of tea, then don’t review it. People will then get a feel for your taste by the albums you review. Then people will say, ‘Oh! This guy is good because all the stuff he recommended, I like! So, I’m going to go by what he says!’
“There needs to be more of that in the world because time is such a rare commodity that we have, with the world being so fast. With technology and everything, people don’t have time to look at 8 zillion releases. There’s no way you could walk through all of that. So, we need to have more ‘taste makers’ – people whose tastes you can trust.
“It’s like going into a wine store, let’s say. You don’t really know all the wines but you know that the owner has good taste. So, the first time you buy a bottle of wine from him and it’s really good, you go, ‘You know? I really liked that. What else would you recommend?’ And then he starts recommending many things and you go back again and again because you trust the person. You can apply that to all kinds of art.”
Returning briefly to the premise of Boomerocity, Gary says, “It’s great for people who leave their work for a few minutes to visit some place that’s positive, you know? It’s like
Photo by Rob Shanahan
taking a short vacation – it just takes the tension off of your mind.”
My head sufficiently swollen from the positive feedback from Mr. Wright, I brought the conversation back around to Connected. Many artists go into a studio with songs that may have been put away years ago and were recently dusted off. It’s also not unusual for songs to be written while in the process of recording. I asked Gary what were the oldest and newest songs on the record.
“Okay. You’re going to laugh but the oldest song was Satisfied. Satisfied, I wrote with a friend of mine, Bobby Hart. Bobby was in a band called Boyce and Hart. They wrote and produced most of the Monkees’ hits and he wrote Hurt So Bad and Come A Little Bit Closer – a bunch of big hits – a great song writer!
“The version that Bobby and I wrote, though, was more like a shuffle. It was a different kind of feel. So, when I was in the studio – a lot of times when I write songs, I’ll put up some kind of sound on one of my synthesizers that has a rhythm pattern going through it. And then I’ll put a bass line on and a little bit of little bit of drum and I get a feel for the direction of the song is going to be. I might even sing a little melody over it or whatever.
“So, when I did Satisfied, I had this great groove and I was thinking, ‘Boy, wouldn’t it be great if I could plug in one of my old songs. I was thinking, thinking and then BANG! - into my mind pops up Satisfied – but done as a swing feel rather than a shuffle, which is different and it worked! It took me a little while to get used to it but when it did, it worked really well. So that was the oldest song . . . from the early to mid nineties.
“The newest song – let me think, now, about this – the newest song I wrote probably would be – I want to say either Get Your Hands Up or No One Does It Better.”
It’s at this point that I confess that I have three favorite songs for one reason and then another favorite song for a completely different reason. The three are Can’t Find No Mercy, Life’s Not A Battlefield and Connected. I like them for their sound, feel and message. You know, the reasons why most any of us like a song.
However, Kirra Layne struck me in a unique way. I listened to it over and over again, trying to figure out who Gary was singing about. Finally, I was pretty sure that I figured it out: The song had all the things I would say if I was a grandfather. The song HAD to be about his granddaughter, no?
With a chuckle, Wright gives me yet another reply that causes my already swollen head to swell just a wee bit more. “You’re right! I was wondering what people would think who Kirra Layne was. Yeah, that’s my first granddaughter. That’s good! I wrote that song when I was in – I go to Italy every year to an island called Sardinia in the Mediterranean. I wrote about half on my album on an acoustic guitar when I went there on various vacations – one in particular. The one when I wrote Kirra Layne, she was about three months old and I missed her so much, you know, being so far away. So, I just picked up my guitar one morning and knocked that song out.
“The treatment I wanted to give it was not like one with the piano and voice and drums and all that. I wanted to make it special and one track that always stuck out in my mind that I LOVED by the Beatles was She’s Leaving Home. It had a beautiful cello arrangement and I went in that direction with it with a harp, strings, cello’s and stuff.”
I was curious if, when Gary writes songs, does he only write them with the thought that only he would be recording and performing them or does he write any with another artist in mind. The reason I wanted to know is that I thought Satisfied sounded as though it was written for Michael Jackson to sing and Quincy Jones to produce.
“I can see that. I can hear that for sure, definitely. Usually I don’t write for others - not unless it’s specific thing for a movie where somebody asks me to write a song. I’ve done that in the past where they say, ‘Okay, I need something romantic song and this is the kind of scene’ and then I would write it to that specific kind of thing.
“But, usually, when I write songs, they’re usually for me. I find that, when I do it that way, more people are likely to cover it. My stuff in the past has been covered by artist like Eminem and Joan Osborne and Joe Cocker and Anastacia, Maya – quite a few big artists. And they’ve always taken my original songs. It’s usually the big hits like Love Is Alive. No one’s ever done a big version of Dream Weaver.”
I posited that that particular song would be awfully hard to top – that it really can’t be improved.
Gary offers a very objective counter to my thought. “Or, at least that version of it unless somebody took the song and gave it an entirely different treatment. That’s never been done. I mean, it has been. Erin Hamilton did a dance version, which was, actually, quite successful.
“I had another one of my songs from an album I did call The Wright Place which had that hit on it called I Really Want To Know You. One of the songs on it that I wrote with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil – big, big writers who wrote You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling and Under The Boardwalk – the big, classic hits. They wrote one of the songs on that album called Coming Apart. Nothing ever happened to the song and then 25 years later, a DJ named Armand Van Helden, who is quite well known in the techno world, he took the song and just added a drum loop to it, sped it up and it was a HUGE hit throughout the world excluding the United States. It sold something like ten million copies.
Clearly humbled, Wright concludes this line of thinking by saying, “So, I’ve been fortunate in my career to have had my stuff continually recorded by other artists or be in soundtracks, movies, or whatever.”
Being the prolific writer, arranger and recording artist who has worked on many excellent recordings with some of the biggest names in the business, how was Connected different than all of the other projects he worked on?
Gary methodically, and without hesitation, answers the question. “One, I think the caliber of the songs that are on the album, I think they’re all strong as individual units themselves. Two, I think I took advantage of a lot of modern technology in the production and in the sound of things. And, the musicianship of the people that actually played on it – really top caliber.
“Most of the album I did by myself. Of course, the drums were done by – Ringo played on one track and Will Kennedy, who is a great drummer from the Yellowjackets, played on the rest of the album. But, they weren’t real drums. They weren’t acoustic kits. They were samples because I wanted it to have that electronic feel to it. That’s the direction I went, sonically, with it.”
With such a great album and a tremendous fan base, surely there’ll be a tour to promote Connected?
“There will be. I’m in the process of getting that together now. Right now, I’m just jamming to get ready for the Ringo tour. There’s a lot of stuff to learn. The tour is finished on the 7th of August. I’ll want to take some time to just relax for a little bit. But I’m thinking in the fall of doing some work, touring with my own band. I just got back from the east coast. I did five shows on the east coast and they all went down really well. The new material was really well received and we sold out of all the CD’s. That was good to see that from people.”
Because Mr. Wright had mentioned George Harrison and, earlier in our conversation, India, I was instantly reminded of Donovan’s autobiography and some of the other books I’ve read relative to George Harrison’s spiritual journey. In those books, I read where “the Quiet One” was instrumental in introducing his band mates and Donovan to Eastern Philosophy. I asked Gary if George had introduced him to the philosophy, as well.
“Yeah, I mean, George was my mentor, spiritually, when I first met him. He was very much into Eastern Philosophy and he gave me a lot of books. I definitely became interested and have been practicing Yoga Meditation now for 35 years. It’s dramatically changed my life. I try to live my life in a spiritual way, as best I can. That’s what’s great about it.
“In India they say, ‘Don’t accept the concept of God until you have actually had the experience of that.’ You get the experience through deep meditation. That’s what I’ve been doing for these last 35 years and it’s true. It works like mathematics if you practice it. It’s just a different level – it’s a different commitment thing that you have that manifests in all parts of your life.”
While discussion faith, I mention that I’m reminded of the great quote by Blaise Pascal in which he states something to the effect that we all have a God-shaped void in our being.
Wright responds enthusiastically.
“Absolutely! Especially with young kids now, because growing up without a concept of God is so hard with the world as it is now. With all the violence and all the negation, the drugs and all that’s around, kids are lost unless they have a fundamental concept of God or religion. All the religions I see are all the many different rivers flowing into the same ocean. It’s which one you choose to take.”
In discussing the “lack of center” in kids today with regards to faith or even music that inspires action like there was when we were kids growing up, I comment that kids today seem aimless.
“You’re absolutely right. I think a lot of it is that there are not a lot of heroes like there were then - like Crosby, Stills and Nash and Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, and the Beatles, of course – people who had lyrical messages and people who stood behind them.
“Now you find that the business is dominated by entertainers rather than songwriter/artist. A lot of the artists don’t even write their own songs. It becomes trivialized. They’re great singers and they’re great dancers but they’re not artists in the true sense of the word in so much that they’re not writing a lot of their own material. You’ll find some people who are. That makes it more difficult.
“We live in a world with so much competition for the entertainment dollar with cell phones and video things, there’s very little attention span. ADD is almost rampant as an epidemic amongst young kids. They’re over stimulated and they don’t concentrate. They don’t sit down – well, you remember! You used to sit down and listen to an album and turn the lights down and totally get into it. Now, you play one song and then on to the next thing, on to my widget, blah, blah, blah! It’s just so fast!”
Are there any artists today who command Gary’s attention?
“I will turn on, sometimes, some public radio stations. We have one here in L.A. called KCRW and they have some cool, interesting, young artists who are making some very interesting music but you never hear it. This is very eclectic.
“So, it’s there but, unfortunately, the way the business has turned into this huge marketing machine based on the American Idol generation, you’re not going to hear a lot of that kind of stuff unless you dig for it and really know how to do it.
“The good news is that, as kids become more and more aware of the choices out there and start getting into older artists. I see little kids that have heard Led Zeppelin or the Stones for the first time that think they’re new artists and don’t know the difference. You don’t know when you hear something on the radio. They don’t say, ‘This was recorded in 19-whatever’, you know? That’s the good news and I think, ultimately, people are going to use the internet as a giant jukebox and be able to choose the stuff that they want to hear.
“And, like I mentioned before about the taste-maker aspect, the degree that those websites are around that you trust what they have on their site and the content, I think that’s going to be a real big – that’s the new record company model.”
Photo by Rob Shanahan
In responding to my question about what he sees as positive changes in the music business, Gary Wright provides intuitive insight into the machinery.
“Well, I think one thing is that artist are taking control of their careers and are not being ripped off by major labels like they used to be so much. Now artists are just saying, ‘I’m not going to release anything on a major label. I’m going to do it myself.
“It’s a bolder step. You don’t have the machinery of the big labels but the labels can’t offer that anymore like they used to be able to. So, now, every artist’s is a self-contained entity, which is good, in a way, because you’re your own record company. It becomes a lot more work and time consuming because you’ve got to go out and market, promote and do all of that. So, that, I think, is ultimately a good thing because there were a lot of artists who were just so badly mistreated by labels, getting ridiculously low royalties and don’t have anything to say for the success or fame they had.”
With our time already having expired by at least twenty minutes, I ask one final question of the iconic, musical genius: Are we going to have to wait another 20 years before we see another album from him?
With his ever-present, pleasant chuckle he responds, “No. No, I would say it will be more like another 4 or 5 (years) or even less. I do have a project that I want to do and that’s to write a book because I think I have a lot of stories and experiences that I would like to share with my fans. I will do that, probably, next and then I’ll do a new album.”
Now THAT’S a book I look forward to reading!
After our chat, I clasped my hands behind my head, leaned back in my chair and digested the incredible conversation I had with Gary Wright. What an incredible talent with an intriguing story to tell!
And, as I reflected on what had just transpired, Dream Weaver was playing on iTunes and I closed my eyes as, in my mind’s eye, I was once again driving down dark, country roads in the Arizona night, conjuring up big dreams and remembering once again that anything is possible.